After a relatively uneventful offseason, the Houston Rockets swooped in and grabbed Ty Lawson for practically nothing on Sunday, giving up a few end of the bench guys - Nick Johnson, Pablo Prigioni, Kostas Papanikolau and Joey Dorsey - and a lottery protected first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets for the talented but troubled PG. As a comparison, the Dallas Mavericks just gave up one of the best reserve big men in the league (Brandan Wright), a young wing who received a $35 million extension (Jae Crowder) and a first-round pick with only Top 7 protections for Rajon Rondo.
Of course, the reason the Rockets were able to get Lawson without giving up a single rotation player had everything to do with his off-the-court issues, as he was busted for a second DUI in less than six months a week ago. He’s currently in rehab and could face a lengthy suspension when he gets back and the Nuggets clearly wanted to get rid of him before he could have any influence on Emmanuel Mudiay. According to Zach Lowe at Grantland, the Los Angeles Lakers were the only other team really interested in Lawson. The move fits Daryl Morey’s modus operandi perfectly - he’s taking a chance on a guy based on his basketball skills and figuring everything else will take care of itself.
Morey has long been criticized for not valuing his players as human beings and looking them solely through the prism of their statistics and their value on the open market. That criticism really picked up steam when he let Chandler Parsons, the most popular player in their locker room, walk in restricted free agency after he called his offer sheet “one of the most untradeable deals in the NBA”. Morey was looking at it strictly as business since he could get a better defender and spot-up shooter at the position for half the price in Trevor Ariza.
Over the last few seasons, the Houston GM has been playing every angle in the book to accumulate assets without the slightest regard for how it would affect team chemistry. Even in the here today, gone tomorrow world of the NBA, the amount of turnover on the Rockets roster has been breathtaking. They signed Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to be key pieces for the future and then gave them away for nothing. Harden, acquired three years ago, is their longest tenured player. They have six players left from Opening Day last season.
The results of all those transactions, though, are hard to argue with. Morey has been able to walk the fine line of turning his team into a legitimate title contender without ever sinking to the bottom of the standings and accumulating a bunch of high lottery picks. The roster he has assembled is as deep as any in the league with just about everyone in the prime of their career:
PG: Ty Lawson (27), Patrick Beverley (27)
SG: James Harden (26), Marcus Thornton (28)
SF: Trevor Ariza (30), Corey Brewer (29), KJ McDaniels (22), Sam Dekker (21)
PF: Terrence Jones (24), Donatas Motiejunas (25), Montrezl Harrell (21)
C: Dwight Howard (30), Clint Capela (22)
Compare this group with what they had at this time last year, when depth was their number one concern. They were counting on European free agents like Dorsey and Papanikolau to play major minutes and there were huge question marks about almost every position on the second unit. Without Parsons and Lin, it was Harden against the world, as Houston had no other perimeter player they could consistently run offense through. That dynamic went to another level once Beverley went down with a season-ending wrist injury and Kevin McHale was forced to cobble together a post-season PG rotation of a 38-year old Jason Terry and 37-year old Pablo Prigioni.
From an on-court perspective, Lawson fills the biggest hole on last season’s roster, the lack of secondary playmaking and shot-creating next to Harden. Not only could the opposing team structure their entire defensive game-plan around Harden, they could hide whoever they wanted on the Rockets other two perimeter players. The Golden State Warriors killed them when Harden was off the floor in the Western Conference Finals. Lawson’s presence makes their offense much more versatile and allows them to attack for all 48 minutes - they have two guys who can consistently create a high-percentage shot off the pick-and-roll as the primary option and who can spot-up off the ball when playing together.
After so many negative headlines in Denver, it’s easy to forget what a dynamic player Lawson can be. Even in a down season, Lawson averaged 15.2 points and 9.6 assists on 43.6% shooting and 34.6% from 3 on 2.7 attempts a game. Maybe the most impressive thing was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.84:1. For all the knocks on his decision-making off the court, Lawson doesn’t make a lot of mistakes with the ball in his hands.
Houston played at the 2nd fastest pace in the NBA and they are probably going to play even faster this season. Just about every guy on their roster can get out and fly. The Rockets' phalanx of finishers in the frontcourt should have a field day playing with Harden and Lawson. McHale will have a ton of options when it comes to setting his line-ups, which could be huge when it comes to making sure his two star guards don’t get shredded on defense.
At the same time, it’s easy to paper over chemistry problems when everyone has to play as much as they possibly can and can take as many shots as they want. Take a look at what happened last season. Harden got to hold the ball for practically the entire game. They signed Josh Smith and Corey Brewer off the street and both those guys were given a green light from Day 1. The never-ending wave of injuries meant the guys left on their roster were stretched well past their breaking points. McHale didn’t have to make a lot of tough calls when it came to playing time.
This season, for the first time in the Harden era, everyone on the roster is going to have to sacrifice. Beverley went from starting to coming off the bench. Harden is going to have share the ball with Lawson. Howard is going to have to give up some of his post-ups to accommodate two ball-dominant perimeter players. Brewer and McDaniels just signed new contracts and they are going to be fighting tooth-and-nail for minutes. Jones and Motiejunas are playing for contracts and they are going to have to give up time when the team goes small at PF while Capela’s growth means there won’t be many minutes as small-ball center either.
There are going to be lot of players in Houston who are going to have to swallow their ego for the good of the team. And with the departures of Smith, Prigioni and likely Terry as well, there isn’t a lot of veteran leadership on the roster to keep guys in line, especially Lawson. The chance to compete for a championship should keep him more dialed in, but there’s no guarantee his behavior doesn’t come back to bite the team at the worst possible time.
To be sure, in the incredibly stacked Western Conference, there are worse problems to have. With the top of the conference as good as ever, this is the most talented group the Rockets have ever had under Morey. Maybe the biggest gamble he is making is that none of the other stuff really matters. He’s getting as many talented players as he can and he’s going to throw all of them together and hope for the best. Lawson may have a drinking problem but all that meant for Morey was that it was the perfect time to buy low.